President Biden’s visit to Poland on Friday will affect the country’s unexpected transformation from an illiberal agitator to a symbol of European solidarity, leaving the United States and the European Union concerned about Warsaw’s democratic downfall in celebration of embracing more than two million Ukrainian refugees.
The Big Picture: In October 2020, Biden described Poland at the same time, Hungary and Belarus warned of the “rise of totalitarian regimes.” Today, Poland leads the West by calling for maximum support to Ukraine as its democracy threatens to be crushed by Vladimir Putin.
my knowledge: Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has clashed with the European Union since coming to power in 2015, when it began pursuing a right-wing agenda that Brussels said went against rule of law rules.
- Amid the long feud with Brussels, Polish leaders have found a friend in Donald Trump, whom President Andrzej Duda has met at least five times during his presidency.
- According to the Guardian, Trump was more popular in Poland in 2020 than any other European country, including Hungary. Search in CV.
flash forward: The European Union has been holding billions of dollars in pandemic recovery money for months as a result of Poland’s crackdown on judicial independence, prompting the PiS leader to accuse Germany in December of offering the EU a “Fourth Germany” to make it rich.
- The judicial dispute between the European Union and Poland is not over yet, but European leaders are seeking a solution that would save money and help Warsaw manage the influx of Ukrainian refugees into the country.
- Stephen Mull, a former US ambassador to Poland, told Axios that Axios’ concerns about the decline of democracy have not subsided, but that for now there is “a house burning around the corner” of a key security and intelligence ally with a role in stabilizing Europe.
Between the lines: Daniel Fried, another former ambassador to Poland, said that even before the crisis in Ukraine overshadowed internal problems, Duda had taken a number of steps to refocus Polish politics and halt the country’s slide into isolation.
- In December, for example, Duda violated a controversial media law. The United States condemned him for appearing to target a US-owned news channel often critical of the government.
- He also proposes a compromise to end the dispute between EU courts, breaking a law earlier this month that would have reduced gay education and reproductive rights in schools because “we don’t need more conflict”.
- “In times of national emergency, Duda is the person who represents Poland’s interests in a matter of control over Polish society,” Fred told Axios. “It made it easier for the Biden administration to embrace Poland as an ally as needed.”
the other side: Opposition leaders and critics within the EU argue that Duda’s moderation is a smokescreen and that the West should continue to hold Poland responsible for its democratic decline ahead of next year’s elections.
- Wojciek Olinzak, a former Polish presidential candidate, told Axios that PiS “does international politics in the interest of national politics.”
- This means embracing a popular cause, such as solidarity with Ukraine, while continuing to run the country’s populist politics, says Olenizak.
The Big Picture: Polish society – and not just Polish politics – has completely sided with Ukraine.
- Ukrainians are allowed to travel for free on the state-run railway system and have access to health care, education, and other benefits.
- Refugee camps are few as many Polish families have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes, including government officials who are traditionally anti-immigration.
what are they saying: “It’s this Polish national consensus, and basically you have the whole community organizing itself to help people,” said Fred, who spoke to Axios when he returned from a visit to Warsaw.
- If you ask them why, they will look at you and say, “Because we are,” Fred said, referring to Poland’s history under Nazi and Soviet occupation.
- The Poles think: ‘They are suffering just like us, but we can do something about it. Because we are in NATO safely, and this is our duty to God. It’s really exciting,” Fried said.
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